Rare white-colored black bear exempted from hunting season

Monday, August 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- When hunting season opens Sept. 1, one special bear will be off limits: a rare white-colored black bear that a photographer spotted near Juneau and turned into a local celebrity.

The Alaska Board of Game ordered an emergency closure on hunting of all "white phase" black bears in the Juneau area. Effectively, that covers only one known white bear, the one photographed earlier this month by Pat Costello.

Costello petitioned the board Thursday asking that the bear he's dubbed "Spirit bear" be exempt, and the board ruled Friday.

"People recognize this is a unique animal," Costello said. "They don't want to see it just made into another rug."

Game board Executive Director Diana Cote said the state Department of Fish and Game also support the ban. Game officials said they had been flooded with calls and e-mail from people who saw Costello's photos on the Internet.

State biologists have known of the bear's existence for a few years. It looks almost like a polar bear but has distinctive raccoon-like markings around the eyes. Experts say it likely is a variation of what biologists call a glacier bear -- genetically a black bear, but with a light coat that can run from cinnamon to blue-white.

Glacier bears are scarce, but a bear this white is even more rare. Biologists in Southeast Alaska said they have not seen another like it.

"Actually, there are a lot of different color morphs with black bear. But not quite this white. This is definitely unusual," said Neil Barten, a Department of Fish and Game biologist.

The hunting ban on the white black bear will last at least until a game board meeting Nov. 1, when the board will decide whether to extend it through the end of the hunting season, June 30.

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